A taste as distinctive as the place it came from.


In the early 90’s I was a copywriter at Young & Rubicam, in their London office, working with Art Director Paul Pickersgill.  We had started on the agency’s least sexy accounts (narrowly escaping the ultimate indignity of working on Preparation H, the haemorrhoid cream) but gradually  made our way onto some of the better brands (Heinz, Air Canada, Xerox, Colgate Palmolive, Croft Port, TWA, Ford, Suchard).

Allied Distillers & Vintners (IDV) were thinking of introducing a quirky rum from Queensland into the UK to try and take a tiny slice of Bacardi’s market share (at that time the world’s largest selling alcoholic brand).  Paul and I were selected for the task of developing the entire brand story and advertising campaign from scratch (it was a completely new product, not even on sale down under).

Hard thinking and drinking required

It was the dream job for me (someone who loved to travel and drink) as it required a two week fact finding trip to Queensland – you can’t think up great ideas about Aussie rum without going there and getting gloriously pissed, obviously.  The brief put it in more prosaic terms: go and immerse (I liked the sound of that word!) yourself in the local culture, recce possible locations for a 60 second cinema commercial and research the “Queensland attitude to life, with special reference to drinking”.

I’ll have a Stubbs – because I’m sooo sophisticated

The brief also explained the general idea behind the brand development.  In those days (pre Red Bull and Jägermeister) people’s drinking tastes developed along fairly predictable lines from those with no taste (vodka) or a sweet taste (Bacardi and Coke) to stuff that’s a bit drier and with a stronger flavour (ending up with real ales, whisky and brandy).  What’s more, you are what you drink, so once you turn 19 (18, 17?) it’s no longer cool to drink Bacardi and Coke.  So our rum, called Stubbs, was a white rum like Bacardi, but distilled from cane juice, rather than molasses (the heavy sludge that’s left when the sugar has been extracted).  This meant it was drier and stronger than Bacardi, with a very powerful “spirit” flavour.  The other differentiator was that (unlike ever other rum in the UK) it wasn’t from the Caribbean.  The intention was to position it as a distinctive, characterful drink for the more discerning consumer – the one who has grown out of Bacardi and was looking for something that made them look more worldly and mature.

Apart from that we had pretty much a blank sheet of paper and an unlimited expenses allowance.  However, everyone else in the entire agency hated our guts – how come they got the job and not us?!  So if we didn’t come up with something totally brilliant the knives were already out and sharpened.  No pressure then.

Three men in search of an idea

Paul, myself and the brand manager had a ball.  We went to the distillery, just outside Brisbane, picked up a couple of cases of Stubbs then hit the road, the beaches, the Barrier Reef, the Outback, the rainforest in the far north and all the bars we could find.  I managed to stay fairly inebriated for the full fourteen days, but took lots of notes (honest).

Back in London we came up with idea after idea after idea.  For 12 whole months.  God know what it cost, but Young & Rubicam had several other IDV brands (Smirnoff, Baileys, Croft Sherry and Croft Port) so the agency was probably making enough out of the client to write off a lot of that time (I didn’t like to ask).

More campaigns than you can shake a didgeridoo at

These are just some of the angles we explored:

  • Invent a character, Mr Stubbs, and a complete fictional heritage for the brand – his ancestor came over as convicts, he makes Crocodile Dundee look like a poofdah, and the original distillery was on an old steamer moored in the Logan River (the last bit was true, I believe).
  • Build something around the story of the Hawaiian Cane Toad, introduced to Queensland in the hope it would eat the cane beetles that were destroying the sugar cane crops. It didn’t, and now North Eastern Australia is inundated by big fat poisonous toads that breed like fury.  Watch the cult documentary “Cane Toads: The Conquest” and you’ll get some idea of where we planned to go with this.  This concept hopped into the long grass – it was just too weird for the 90’s but it would probably go down a storm now.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PxxLtiAYdw
  • We developed some ideas around the unique taste and the fact this was because it was distilled from pure cane juice, not molasses. But the concepts bombed in research – nobody gave a toss how it was made!
  • Campaign featuring weird creatures from Oz (Puffer Fish, Platypus, millipedes…). Bottle next to creature with line with line “Rum and Rummer”.
  • Product endorsements by Barry Humphreys as the obnoxious Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s Cultural Attaché. – he slates it as “too sophisticated – the sort of export that will get Australia a bad name”
  • Scuba divers off barrier reef, scared to find something unexpected in water – turns out to be huge ice cube, and giant slice of lemon. Highly surreal, with line “Another great white from out of the blue”
  • Upside down images with line “If you think the best white rum comes from the Caribbean your world is about to be turned upside down”
  • A campaign around “40% STREWTH”

At last – a ripper script

In the end we came up with a cinema commercial storyboard they liked.  We had quick cuts of images, interspersed with a sequence of single words (which you later realise are on the label of a bottle of Stubbs).

So there’s the word STRONG, followed by quick cuts of burly sheep shearers, a tornado sweeping across the outback, a fisherman hauling in a marlin.  At each cut there was the sound effect of a “drip” and occasionally a quick shot of a droplet of clear liquid splashing onto a clear surface to make it clear what the sound is.

Next, the word DRY, followed by parched earth, close up of mouth and lips being licked, images of a bush fire and a desert.   The word WHITE, white shark, white cockatoo, white sand.  The word EXCEPTIONAL, cane toad, road sign warning of bandicoots ahead, Platypus.  The word CHARACTER, followed by a variety of faces of slightly quirky local characters.  The word RUM, followed by shot of rum being poured into tall glass, close up on bottle to show that all the words are actually on the label.

Then the end line builds up from the bottom of the frame (like a glass filling), a new word with every drip sound.  QUEENSLAND, followed by PURE, on top of which comes OF, followed by DROP, and finally A – A DROP OF PURE QUEENSLAND.

To accompany the commercial we produced 48 sheet posters and double page magazine ads, each with a word that describes the taste of the rum and the nature of the environment it came from.


Our market goes walkabout

The drink bombed.  It was very expensive, and strong enough to make you catch your breath.  When we handed it around in rough outback bars people pulled faces at the after-burn.  On one occasion a guy we were playing pool with poured it down the front of his shorts declaring “that’ll cure my jock itch, fer sure!”

To make matters worse the client launched just as the 90’s recession began to bite and mortgages rates hit an eye-watering 15%.  The market for premium spirits fell through the floor and nobody was going to send us back to Oz to shoot a super expensive TV commercial.  Unemployment went to over 10% and we both got laid off.  Still, it was an amazing experience and one that’s not likely to be repeated – things are done differently these days.